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Trade Review: The Great Upton/Prado War

Now that the first post-Upton season is out of the way, perhaps we can look at things with some more objectivity - if not necessarily clarity. In some ways, things unfolded as we expected. But if you had Chris Johnson as the best value of the players involved, I'm sure there's a team who needs you as their GM.

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Justin Upton and Chris Johnson traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Atlanta Braves for Randall Delgado, Martin Prado and Zeke Spruill, plus minor-leaguers Brandon Drury and Nick Ahmed.

January 24, 2013 is one of those days that will probably go down as a turning point in franchise history. Do you remember where you were when Justin Upton was traded? He had always been a polarizing figure among Diamondbacks fandom, I think it's safe to say that a lot of people brought those opinions to the trade. For those who regarded Upton as a lazy underachiever, getting more than a bag of balls for him could only be celebrated; for those who saw him as a young player with MVP talent, no trade would have been acceptable.

The reality, as in most things, ended up falling somewhere between the two schools of thought. In our poll at the time of the trade, more people didn't like it than did - but the biggest group of all, at 30%, were those who voted it a resounding "Meh". But it's not much exaggeration to say that when the news broke of the deal, early on Tuesday morning, hell came with it. All the way through Opening Day, it seemed at time like every other thread inevitably drifted off-topic into a rehashing of the swap. I comforted myself with the thought that, once Opening Day arrived, all the speculation would die down as the players performed at around their expected level.

Justin Upton

Except, when the season started, Upton tore out of the starting gates like a drag-race car, hammering home-runs as if possessed, while Prado's engine misfired badly in the early going. Fortunately for my sanity, when the calendar turned to May, the spirit of Barry Bonds left J-Up, and the flood of Upton trolls, breathlessly announcing every home-run as breaking news, dried up. Justin's performance oscillated wildly over the rest of the season. He hits for power! No, he doesn't. He hits for average! Nope, that's stopped. Both? Neither? WTF? Here are his monthly splits for the season

April 112 94 22 28 12 19 16 30 .298 .402 .734 1.136
May 113 95 16 20 2 10 17 32 .211 .327 .326 .654
June 111 93 12 21 1 8 14 27 .226 .336 .280 .616
July 103 96 14 28 1 11 6 21 .292 .330 .427 .757
August 97 84 17 25 8 16 11 24 .298 .392 .631 1.023
Sept 107 96 13 25 3 6 11 27 .260 .336 .406 .743

There's pretty much something here for everyone, regardless of their opinion. Two great months, two horrible ones, and two best summed up as "meh." His average was lower than expected, and he struck out a career-high 161 times (not that the Braves were bothered by such things, with the highest team K-rate in the league). But Upton compensated by hitting more homers (27) than he had in all but one season with Arizona. As a result, looking at the season as a whole, Upton's OPS+ was 122, almost identical to the figure of 121 posted over the previous five years with the Diamondbacks.

One area which did appear to drop off significantly was Upton's defense. Though single-season defensive metrics are liable to random variation, it may be significant that he went from being an everyday right-fielder with Arizona, to spending the majority of the time in left with the Braves, while still starting 52 games in right. Fangraphs reports that his UZR dropped to a career-low -9.6, and Baseball Reference tends to agree, his dWAR there also being Upton's worst figure of -1.5.

Chris Johnson

Not to pick on those responsible, but here are the very first comments on our Upton trade story:



The Chris Johnson era is over!

My name is not O'Houigheighi nor is it Brian


I actually

am thankful for that.

Goldschmidt happens.

And yet, Johnson's value ended up being not too different from Upton or Prado over the course of the season. Indeed, considering he earned an awful lot less than either of them, you could argue that, relative to his salary, he was the most valuable player involved in the deal. It was, admittedly, largely unexpected. ZIPS projections for 2013, for example, had Johnson penciled in for a .254 average, and none of the systems had him even batting .280. In reality, he far surpassed that. He ended the year second in the league for batting average, his .321 trailing only Michael Cuddyer (who was definitely helped by playing in Colorado, where he hit .356).

Admittedly, a large factor in that was Johnson's BABIP of .394, almost a hundred points higher than the league average of .297. I absolutely would not bet on that being sustained in to 2014, though it does show that over the course of a single season, BABIP will not necessarily regress to the mean. Johnson's reputation as a "hands of stone" defender at the hot corner did seem to be justified, with negative defensive metrics in both traditional (a .951 F% compared to league average .958) and advanced categories (-0.8 dWAR). But while surprising and probably not reproducible, there's no denying his overall numbers in 2013 were a boost to Atlanta.

Martin Prado

While Prado's strong versatility was certainly one of the appealing aspects of his skill-set, the plan when Prado was signed, was for him to be our everyday third-baseman. There might be the odd days spelling Aaron Hill, or in the outfield, but generally, he'd be at third-base the vast majority of the time. It didn't work out that way. While Prado did start more often at third, that was only 96 games, as he was pressed into regular service at second-base after Hill broke his hand, and also appeared 30 times in left-field.

At the plate, he got off to a very slow start, hitting .217.266/.348 in April, for a .614 OPS. Prado improved in May to a .732 OPS, but slid back to his worst month of all in June, batting .209 with a .586 OPS. But a light-bulb seemed to click on for Prado at the beginning of July, and he batted .319 for the rest of the season, putting up an .856 OPS. That included an August which was positively incandescent, batting .374 and driving in 30 runs for the month, a performance which won him National League Player of the Month honors - an award which had also been given to Upton for his April surge.

Why Martin took a while to get going, even Prado himself isn't sure, but speculates that the pressure of the trade and its expectations might have backfired on him. "I was thinking that we could win the game just me doing good. Now I realize that we're nine guys, it's not like I have to do everything. So I just realized that we've got to win as a team and it's not about me." Kevin Towers agreed: "I think it was the first big contract that he's ever had, in a new city in a major trade with a very popular player that left here, probably putting added pressure to really prove to everybody that it was a good deal."

Randall Delgado

Delgado was a contender for the fifth spot in spring training, but an ERA of 7.45 over six starts got him reassigned to Triple-A Reno, though he did outlast Tyler Skaggs. Things started off badly, with an ERA of 9.00 in his first eight starts, but some mechanical adjustments apparently were made, and they paid immediate dividends. Over his final five outings for the Aces (round a cup of coffee out of our bullpen), he allowed seven earned runs in 30 innings, a 2.10 ERA, which got him the call to join the D-backs rotation in mid-June. From there through the end of July he was excellent, culminating in a three-hitter against the Padres, one of only two shutouts we threw all season.

However, the rest of his season was spoiled by an awful frequency of home-runs. From August on, Delgado threw 62.2 innings and allowed 17 long-balls. While opponents hit only .248 against him over that time, they slugged .538, leading to a 5.46 ERA. Getting that tendency under check is going to be key to determining whether or not Delgado can become an effective pitcher at the major-league level, and it is worth remembering Delgado is still 23. Towers is certain of the reason: "It’s location. He’s got great stuff. They’re not missing his mistakes. His homers are going to be getting too much of the plate, an elevated fastball or a change-up that’s left up in the zone."

And the rest

Of the three other players received by Arizona in the deal, Spruill was the only one to appear in the majors, and that was an almost token 11.1 innings of work. He started 21 games in the minors, between Mobile and Reno, putting up a 3.49 ERA there. Shortstop Nick Ahmed played for Mobile, and solidified his reputation as a good defender, winning the Rawlings Gold Glove for the minors, but continued to provide weak offensive production, with a .613 OPS. Finally, young third-baseman Brandon Drury, who turned 21 in August, hit well at South Bend, batting .302 with fifteen home-runs and an .862 OPS


Arizona bWAR fWAR Salary Atlanta bWAR fWAR Salary
Martin Prado 2.3 2.4 $7m Justin Upton 2.6 3.2 $9.75m
Randall Delgado 0.1 0.1 $490K Chris Johnson 2.0 2.8 $2.875m
Zeke Spruill -0.5 -0.2 $490K
Total 1.7 2.3 $7.98m 4.6 6.0 $12.625m

It's probably reasonable to assert that, while the Braves did make the playoffs and the Diamondbacks didn't, the trade does not appear to have been a significant factor: Arizona wouldn't have reached the post-season with Upton, and Atlanta would still have, without him. But the first year of the trade saw the Braves definitely come out on top. Though the cost of their players was significantly higher than for the D-backs, Upton and Johnson produced at a high enough level to justify their price-tag. It was really the unexpected level of output from Johnson which proved crucial this year: if you took him out of the equation, the scales would be much more evenly balanced.

However, the early disparity was not particularly unexpected, with four of the five players received by Arizona being prospects, whose value (if any) will only be realized in the long-term. Next year, the salary gap will increase: Upton gets a bigger bump than Prado, while Johnson enters his second year of arbitration, and will certainly receive a nice increase. Will they continue to perform at their current level? Can Delgado keep the ball in the park and become a solid back of the rotation guy? We can't say: it may be coming up on a year after the deal, but we don't seem very much closer to any real assessment of who "won" this one.